Unthinkable to the Founders: One in five Americans today has no religious affiliation.
By DAVID AIKMAN
A hypothetical Martian with a deep interest in America's political and cultural history would be surprised and perhaps amused at the religious composition of those running in the current presidential campaign.
The incumbent president is an adult convert to Christianity after being raised by a mother he has described as agnostic but interested in many faiths. His opponent is a Mormon, a faith tradition entirely indigenous to America and less than two centuries old. As for the two vice-presidential candidates, both are Catholic. This is the first presidential election in American history in which neither of the two presidential candidates or vice-presidential candidates was brought up as a Protestant.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, American Protestants recently became a minority of the country (48%) for the first time—not just since the American Revolution, but since the establishment of the first English colonies on American soil. Even more notably, the same Pew research revealed that 20% of all Americans now say they are not affiliated with any religion.
At one level, this is a victory for religious pluralism—or, to use the politically correct term, diversity. At another, when one in five Americans has no religious affiliation, it is a commentary on the diminished importance of the moral underpinnings that characterized the United States for most of its existence.
At the country's founding, even skeptics and Deists like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin paid great respect to the morality and values that the vast majority of Americans accepted as God-given standards by which to live. These were standards rooted in Christian belief and teachings. Jefferson, as is well known, was a man of the Enlightenment who was genuinely skeptical about the supernatural claims of Christianity. Even he, however, believed in the need for virtue in national life as an essential ingredient for the safe continuation of the republic.
The Founders shared a conviction about the necessity for national virtue, and most equated this directly with Christianity. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) said that Christianity was "the strong ground of republicanism. Many of its concepts have for their objects republican liberty and equality, as well as simplicity, integrity and economy in government."
Happily for all of us since then, the Founders rejected the folly of the state's promoting any denominational brand of Christianity. After much early and often noisy opposition from Protestants at the popular level, Catholics came first to be tolerated and then eventually to be welcomed into the national tapestry of faiths. Just as the leaven of the Gospel message of love pricked Protestant Christian consciences to accept Catholics, so did the Gospel's message move Americans to address, and at last erase, the wicked national stain of slavery.
Meanwhile, at the popular level, individual lives were being changed and entire communities swept clean of corruption and squalor through the phenomenal social effect of the Second Great Awakening (from approximately 1800 to 1850), a Christian revival movement that swept the country. A teacher traveling through Kentucky in 1802 at the height of the revivals there reported that "it was the most moral place" he had ever visited. In South Carolina, after similar revivals, he observed: "Drunkards have become more sober and orderly—bruisers, bullies and blackguards meek, inoffensive, and peaceable."
It is hard to believe today, when a secular orthodoxy clanks its way peevishly through academe, the media and popular culture, that it was broadly accepted by most Americans throughout the 19th century that America was at heart Christian—not in any formal or legal sense, but in the values and morality that most people wanted to observe.
The German-trained historian George Bancroft, in his magisterial "History of the United States of America," said that he thought America was a Christian nation established and sustained by God for the purpose of spreading liberty and democracy in the world, an idea that lies at the heart of American exceptionalism. In fact, the belief that America was called by God to be "a new Israel" and a blessing to the world goes right back to the Puritan preacher John Winthrop. In his famous shipboard sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," on the Arabella in 1631, Winthrop made the much-quoted statement about America: "We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
The eyes of all are still upon America, but it is a markedly different place. As the secularization of that city upon a hill continues, it is not hard to imagine a presidential race one day that involves candidates who practice no religion at all.
Mr. Aikman, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, is the author of "One Nation Without God: The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief" (Baker Books, 2012).
A version of this article appeared October 26, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: America's Religious Past Fades in a Secular Age.